Standing on One Leg
by Lee Rossi
One, by Gerald Fleming, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, New York, 2017, 96 pages, $18.00 paperback.
WE ALL RECALL what Robert Frost said about poetry and tennis. With each new book, Gerald Fleming seems determined to raise Frost's 'net' higher and higher. In the afterword to his latest volume, One, Fleming tells us, "This book began accidentally," in response to a challenge to write something in form. Instead of attempting the usual sonnet or sestina, he decided to use only one-syllable words. Pleased with his initial efforts (and positive responses from editors), he continued in this vein, eventually producing a whole book of monosyllabic prose poems.
Clever, you say, but doesn't something like that get boring? Doesn't writing in monosyllables produce a kind of psychological catatonia, those terse cadences lapsing into mock-Hemingway, or faux-Spillane?
Fortunately Fleming is no Spillane, nor does he aspire to be Hemingway. Russell Edson and, lurking in the shadowy past, Kafka, are his touchstones. This is Fleming's fourth book, and it shows. He joins the deftness of experience with a freedom to write in unexpected ways. Never ham-handed, his structures are unexpectedly light and delicate, their individual stones coming together in pleasingly varied ways, like the arches and columns, galleries and domes of Venetian gothic.
Working in single-syllabics comes as an unexpected choice for a writer who in his earlier books shows himself at home in multiple languages, arts, and historical periods, projecting an educated, urbane persona, confident and charming. But perhaps after three such books, Fleming may have grown tired of always seeming smart. The title poem offers us the example of "Ms. Reese," a student-teacher "who spoke to the kids from on high," and as a result loses her students. Poets face similar risks, Fleming seems to say; the desire to produce elegant, elevated discourse can be its own kind of strait-jacket, impeding communication and separating the poet from potential readers.
In fact, this new book seems rather more down to earth than its predecessors, and yet does not sacrifice Fleming's other characteristic strengths, especially his ability to create a complex tapestry of voice, tone, and incident. We encounter slice-of-life anecdotes, shaggy-dog style jokes, parables that refuse easy moralizing, and the occasional upending of familiar myth.
Given the variety of voices and genres in this book, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to realize how thematically unified it is. The title hints at the theme, for throughout the book we are in the land of the One, not the One God of desert religion, but His pale reflection, the subjective (white male) ego of liberal economics and social theory. Fleming interrogates the limits of the liberal 'I', its constant striving, positing itself as the hero of every story. "I think, therefore I am," postulated Descartes, and Fleming's masculine egos over-think themselves into (and out of) existence. Female subjects are freer of these constraints to be normative, definitive, the ruling paradigm, and therefore can more easily see the way in which their male partners are blind to their own limitations. (Sound like anyone we know?)
In "And Soon the Wind Had It in Its Mind to Shift" blindness comes in the form of a sandstorm. What begins as a casual stroll soon transmogrifies into a doomed struggle to survive, vignette becomes parable, the protagonist a distant descendant of Jack London's wilderness trekkers: "miles he'd walked in that sand, not a tree in sight, just what he'd hoped for…proud of how far he'd trudged, how strong his legs." Ignoring obvious signs of impending disaster, he keeps on, having lost all landmarks and bearings, until finally, he realizes, "This might not be so wise, …where's that patch of cane grass I passed—it was huge, a whole field of green." In the end we witness his hapless search for shelter. Oops! This foolishness obtains even in a realm where we would expect greater self-awareness and perhaps even some modesty, the creative arts. Fleming's Literary Man is a hardly more evolved version of Homo Economicus, fixated on his own marginal utility. "The Old Bard, Three Gins In," for example, tells his interlocutor, a younger male writer, to forget about notions of literary greatness and focus instead on getting laid. "You could do it, Pal. Your work's great," he tells the young writer, offering a rocky vista of complicity and moral ambiguity.
In Fleming's world, friendship between males is wrought with this sort of sexual one-up-manship. "What Jean-Paul Told Me" strikes a note of cruelty from beyond the grave. Invoking that great existential womanizer, Fleming imagines Sartre issuing one last directive to some hapless death-bedside friend. Make love to six different women, he enjoins, "the first [with] skin dark and soft as a night sky in May…[the] last so white she puts new milk to shame." The survivor is shocked. He's happily married and as old as the other guy. What new form of cruelty is this?
Women know. They experience the casual cruelty of men all the time, the more successful the man, the more casual and cruel his behavior. Or maybe he's so self-involved that he's blind to all the people who make his success possible. In "Clay Hall: the Wife Speaks," we hear (sotto voce) about all her efforts to make her husband's writing something readable: "Then I'll pull a line from deep down the page & put it first, switch one phrase for the next (he's got no scale, this man—thoughts have rank, for Pete's sake—try to breathe some life into it—a kind of CPR, it is.…" In a week he'll accept a Life Achievement Award, never dreaming that the achievement belongs to someone else.
What's missing in Fleming's male characters, then, is a sense of who they might be if, instead of trying to be a Real Man, a Success, they strove to be a complete human being. Fleming seems to suggest that, while difficult, this is not an altogether impossible goal. In "The Whole Man" we meet a guy who has everything: "Grew tall, got good grades, tried football, loved the slap of pigskin…be yanked down, wrap arms 'round friends, make a new plan, go. Found a great girl, too." But despite the ease and satisfaction of his life "he felt like an old steel post: his job, to hold things up." So what does he do? He becomes an artist, in clay, then stone, but his first attempts are unsuccessful: "The feet too small, the calves too long, the arms ape-like, the face full of dumb woe." That "face full of dumb woe" tells us everything. "This is the worst thing I've made in my life!" he admits, finally accepting failure into his behavioral repertoire. Hopefully, he'll keep at it. One day he might truly become a whole man.
In the meantime, Fleming offers us stories and parables that expose our cultural pathology, cajoling and/or delighting those of us who need his insight and inspiration.
Lee Rossi's most recent poetry book is Wheelchair Samurai. Among his previous collections is Ghost Diary. A staff reviewer and interviewer for the online magazine Pedestal, a contributing editor for Poetry Flash, and a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, his poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in San Carlos, California.